Decorated Instruments

Posted By on December 17, 2009

Violins are handsome objects, no question about it. Lots of writers have gone into ecstasies about the outline, the varnish and the subtle arching and so on. Most of a violin’s form is necessary. Its general shape and size are defined by what is practical and what makes the best sound – it must have a waist so that the bow can be used, for example. The possible exceptions to this “form-follows-function” rule are the corners and the scroll. There have always been experiments with guitar-shaped violins – violins without corners. Stradivari himself made one (there may be more) and it sounds very well. Joshua Bell used it for his recording of the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Much later, some respected French makers, most notably Chanot, revived the form. But it has never caught on.

The scroll, which can provide so many clues about the maker, is sometimes referred to, in old literature, as a hook – for that is all the function it has. I think it is a pity that nearly every violin copies this form of ornament. Certainly it can be very attractive, but it still seems rather unimaginative to stick with this renaissance design. Some Bavarian and Tyrolese makers, including Stainer, often used a stylised lion’s head, which works well enough, being about the same weight as a scroll and still functioning as a hook to hang the violin with. And I have seen a really superb piece of 18th century carving, a magnificent bird of prey’s head with an arched neck. The feathers were carefully worked all along the back of the pegbox, and the line of the curved neck was continued into the creature’s hooked beak – from any distance it was the same shape as an ordinary scroll. It was inset with beautiful polished stone black eyes.

Why don’t we see more of this kind of thing? Because players simply won’t buy it, that’s why. The innate conservatism of the market forces new makers to follow the established practice, even in matters of decoration.

The seventeenth century Italian maker Antonio Mariani quite commonly inlaid the backs of his instruments with purfling parquetry. It does not affect the sound at all. It was a purely aesthetic consideration, and it evidently sold satisfactorily to his clientele at that time. But it wouldn’t work today – buyers shy away from any such ostentation. A few years ago I sold a really beautiful old violin with an intricate and subtle design of purfling inlay in the back – it was uphill work, though, and I found myself saying “don’t worry, it’s in the back, nobody will see it when you’re playing . . . ” as though it were something to be ashamed of.

Painted stradivari

In October 1974 Sotheby’s sold an early Strad with a rather fine painting of a lion on the back. (They said it was a lion; it looks more like a tiger to me.) It was quite nice, actually, and here is a very poor photo-of-a-photo to give you an idea. The painting disguised several cracks in the back, of course. It was very cheap. After the sale the paint was removed and the back restored as well as could be done – and of course, without the decoration, it was taken as a serious instrument, and subsequently sold for a far higher figure.

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